Jim, who grew up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, studied a Bachelor of Economics (Political Economy) at the University of Sydney. Although his original undergraduate degree had no Indonesian components, Jim went on to twice study at Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana (UKSW) in Salatiga, Central Java, before completing a Master of Arts (Asian Studies) at the University of NSW, where he completed a sub-thesis on Indonesian politics. Jim is currently South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group based in Jakarta (where his pet hate is the traffic!). He took some time out to answer some questions from the AIYA team.
Tell us a little about your involvement with Indonesia?
On my first big overseas trip, I flew Garuda Indonesia to Europe but didn’t think to stop off either on the way out or way back. In those days, I still trying to perfect my Italian. Before moving to Indonesia, I had been a journalist working in print, the wires, and radio. It was while I was living in Adelaide that I started to get restless and look for wider horizons in Asia. I first visited Indonesia to study at UKSW my own expense, but I soon came back as a participant in the 1991-92 Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP). It was while living in an isolated village in Jambi with a rice farming family that I first started to master the language and like the vibe of the place. I continued to study and visit when I could, I wrote travel pieces while there and op-eds for the Jakarta Post from Australia. I was awarded a fellowship under the DFAT ASEAN Visits Program, which included travel to Malaysia.
I left Australia in June 1994 thanks to an Australia-Indonesia Institute scholarship for journalists. I found Indonesia more interesting that what I had been doing back in Sydney; I never returned. One thing has always led to another. I worked as a foreign correspondent for Agence France Presse and Reuters in the period 1994-1998. People I met during that time hired me for a World Bank consultancy in D.C. which led to being a UN official, first in New York, and then in Dili and Jakarta from 1999-2000 working on the referendum and subsequent UN mission. Next came a consultancy for the Asia Foundation and then National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2000 that led to setting up their office in East Timor. During the time I worked for NDI in Timor-Leste (2000-2003) I regularly visited Jakarta. Since leaving Australia 18 years ago, I have not got a job where the person hiring me hasn’t noted my experience in Indonesia or the fact that I speak Indonesian.
And what about your current job?
I have been working with the International Crisis Group since April 2009. I was approached to apply for the job by my current boss, who was on the advisory body of the project that I was working on at the Social Science Research Council in New York. As South East Asia Project Director (link), I work as the regional editor, manager, and spokesman for our work on the ten ASEAN countries and Timor-Leste. I think I was successful in getting the job as I had the right mix of skills and experience. Of course, running ICG’s regional office from Jakarta means that I use my Indonesian language skills everyday.
Any practical advice for young Australians interesting in getting involved in Indonesia?
Invest in language training. Whatever you put in, you’ll get 300 per cent return on your investment. Language skills are the gold of international work – instantly recognised for their value and easily traded and converted into cash. Read history. Be patient. Visit often. Experiment. Do not be afraid of taking risks – both physical and professional – especially while you’re young (i.e. under 30). Importantly, get some real professional experience in Australia as you prepare to go to international. It will serve you well.
Dream 4-week travel itinerary?
Travel East from Bali through Nusa Tenggara Barat and Nusa Tenggara Timur, up through the Maluku to Raja Ampat, ending in Sulawesi Utara. If there’s any time left, I’d go overland through Sulawesi to Makassar via Wakatobi and Tanah Toraja.
Any quick, final thoughts on Indonesia’s future?
Indonesia will get by, grow, be bigger, stronger, and more powerful but seems always to be a land of unfilled promise. It is a huge place restrained by the myriad of competing and contradictory forces as well as a complex web of self-interests across the archipelago.
Find out more about Jim’s work at the ICG website, or you can follow the project’s work on its blog, Resolving Conflict in South East Asia. Twitter (@jimdella) or Facebook. You can contact Jim via Linked-In.